The Real Life Of Today’s Mayans

Copan, Frida Larios

The Mayans from Mesoamerica are one of the six founding pillars of early civilization. According to the Foundation for Mesoamerican Studies, they invented the concept of zero and devised one of the most accurate ways of measuring time in the history of the world. Their hieroglyphic writing is still very much unknown, apart from the elite few who knew it at the time and the academics who have deciphered it.

Harvard’s Peabody Museum epigrapher, Alexandre Tokovinine, believes ancient Maya hieroglyphs are the most elaborate and visually striking writing system in Pre-Columbian America. “Although some Maya texts, particularly those in the surviving manuscripts, are characterized by rather simple and straightforward execution of letters, most inscriptions on carved monuments, buildings, and painted vessels decidedly rival in beauty and visual complexity the best examples of calligraphy of the Old World,” he said.

For more than two years I was in close contact with a Maya-Chortí indigenous community while living in the mountains of Copán Ruinas, Honduras at Hacienda San Lucas eco-lodge and reserve. They are one of the last Honduran inheritors of the great Maya civilization that thrived from 1000 B.C. through 1500 A.D.

For a community of indigenous peoples whose ancestors managed to create an affluent empire and a sophisticated common writing system that was used across what is modern Central America, today they face harsh and constant economic and social struggle–certainly not an echo of their glorious past.

The lack of education sets them right at the bottom of the social system–right were the walls are made out of carton and children are raised amongst dirt. Children have to walk miles and cross rivers to get to school, most have to work while they are still infants to help feed their brothers and sisters. They can hardly afford to plant their own crops or make a self-sustainable decent living wage.

Their illiteracy affects them in their practical living. Maya-Chortí today cannot read the instructions on the pesticides they to use for their crops, which affects their health. They cannot read the instructions of a medical prescription so they self-medicate wrongly. They need help to cope with most jobs and many everyday situations, like dialing a number or reading a letter. Their lives are impaired and their greatest enemy is letters.

In contrast, our modern lives as middle class literate and even bilingual citizens revolves around the computer and information circulating in the global digital system called the World Wide Web, we are able to read books and labels and now most of us are computer literate. Indigenous populations in remote corners of the world cannot comprehend modern digital spreading, gathering or design of information because many cannot read or write. Their emergent needs are supporting a family of 10 on $2 per day, or getting to a hospital on foot that is 30 miles away. For an indigenous community that has little food, education or healthcare—digital communication and information design are the last things on their mind—unless it touched them by helping them understand the world of letters around them.

My ideal would be a world with no alphabetical words—where icons were the only language. This would help bridge the gap between illiteracy and emotional comprehension of a message. Some indigenous peoples who don’t know how to read or write the Spanish language nor their own heritage hieroglyphics’ codex, feel close to the New Maya Language pictograms because they don’t need to know the alphabet or numbers to understand it. It just comes to them naturally.

A 100% pictographic language bridges the gap between once a highly literate community now living extremely poor and undermined, and our modern era of over information. In my vision, it is the answer to include minorities who are otherwise diminished by not being able to access the physical or digital world of information around them.

Don Damasio in the picture is the father of Don Mundo, the New Maya Language indigenous stone-carver. Read about Don Mundo here. All photographs by Tyler Orsburn©.

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